Sunday, October 14, 2018

Peter, Cornelius and the Jerusalem Conference: A Study on Acts 15:1-17 (Part Two)

For part one of this study, click here:

When were the sins of Cornelius and his house pardoned?

The message Peter heralded to Cornelius and his house is referred to in Acts 11:14 as “declarations to you [Cornelius] by which you shall be saved, you and your entire house.” The salvation referred to here is the obtaining of the pardon of sins (which is what qualified those called through the evangel of the Circumcision for eonian life in the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel). In Acts 11:15-18, we read that Peter went on to declare the following to the group of Jewish believers to whom he was relating his experience involving Cornelius: Now as I begin to speak, the holy spirit falls on them, even as on us also in the beginning. Now I am reminded of the declaration of the Lord, as He said that ‘John, indeed, baptizes in water, yet you shall be baptized in holy spirit.’ If, then, God gives them the equal gratuity as to us also, when believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I –able to forbid God?”

The coming of the holy spirit upon Cornelius and his house was clearly an exceptional event, akin to what took place on Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4. It must be kept in mind that what took place on Pentecost was not the salvation of the twelve apostles, but rather their supernatural empowerment. The pardoning of their sins did not occur when the holy spirit fell on them; these were two separate events. And although the specific supernatural manifestation that took place on this occasion (i.e., their speaking in different languages) was intended to be a sign to all of the other Jews who were present at this time, there is no evidence that this manifestation was intended to be understood as evidence that their sins had been pardoned. That was simply not the point of this supernatural event.

So why did the holy spirit fall on Cornelius and his house when it did (which was, we’re told, as Peter began to speak)? And why did it bring about this particular supernatural manifestation? What did this occurrence signify to Peter and his Jewish companions? To answer this question, let’s consider what Peter made sure to do immediately after Cornelius and his house had heard and believed the declarations by which they could be saved. In Acts 10:47-48 we read that Peter had Cornelius and his house baptized in the name of Jesus Christ: “Then Peter answered, ‘There cannot be anyone to forbid water, so that these are not to be baptized, who obtained the holy spirit even as we.’ Now he bids them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they ask him to stay some days.” Peter’s “bidding” Cornelius and his house to be water baptized was no mere superfluous action on Peter’s part. Water baptism was in accordance with his apostolic commission and administration (i.e., Israel’s “salvation program”), and was understood by Peter as being essential to obtaining the pardon of sins. In Acts 2:37-41 we read:

Now, hearing this, their heart was pricked with compunction. Besides, they said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we be doing, men, brethren?” Now Peter is averring to them, “Repent and be baptized each of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the pardon of your sins, and you shall be obtaining the gratuity of the holy spirit. For to you is the promise and to your children, and to all those afar, whosoever the Lord our God should be calling to Him.” Besides, with more and different words, he conjures and entreated them, saying, “Be saved from this crooked generation!” Those indeed, then, who welcome his word, are baptized, and there were added in that day about three thousand souls. 

See also Mark 16:16 and Acts 8:35-38. In accord with what Peter declared in Acts 2:38, Peter referred to water baptism in his first letter as something that was “saving” those to whom he wrote (1 Pet. 3:20-21), since it was the act by which they had inquired “of a good conscience to God.” Peter’s identifying water baptism with the act by which “a good conscience to God” is requested means that it was understood as an act of faith-based obedience by which those to whom Peter wrote had first obtained the pardon of sins (see also Hebrews 10:22, where the cleansing of the heart by faith is said to be “from a wicked conscience”). For Peter, water baptism was clearly a faith-based act of obedience to Christ that resulted in the cleansing of one’s heart, and was not optional for those called through the gospel of the Circumcision he heralded.[1]

Thus, Peter and his companions would not have understood the supernatural manifestation that they witnessed as Peter began to speak as being evidence that Cornelius and his house had already obtained the pardon of sins. Rather, they would’ve understood it as God’s way of testifying to the fact that Cornelius and his house were acceptable to him, and thus eligible to be saved. This supernatural manifestation was immediate (and powerful) confirmation for Peter and his Jewish companions that the kingdom of God had been “unlocked” to these God-fearing, righteous-acting Gentiles, and that there was nothing preventing them from being water baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the pardon of their sins.

“In nothing discriminates between us and them”

Peter went on to declare the following in Acts 15:9: ”And God, the Knower of hearts, testifies to them, giving the holy spirit according as to us also, and in nothing discriminates between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.With this single statement, Peter’s refutation of the view of the believing Pharisees who were present at the Jerusalem conference was complete. His eyewitness testimony (which was based solely on the events involving Cornelius and his house described in Acts 10 and 11) was sufficient to completely undermine their position that Gentiles had to become members of God’s covenant people in order to be saved. As Gentiles who were already “fearing God and acting righteously,” Cornelius and his house were already “acceptable to God,” and the only thing that was lacking was their faith in the evangel of the Circumcision (and, as a required expression of their faith, getting water baptized). Thus, when Cornelius and his house did hear and believe what Peter declared to them, there was nothing about their uncircumcised, Gentile status that prevented them from receiving the pardon of sins through water baptism, just as Peter and his believing Jewish companions had received (which, as we’ve seen, is what Peter had in mind when referring to the cleansing of the heart by faith). Hence, Peter immediately had Cornelius and his house baptized after it had been made so evident by God that the kingdom had been unlocked to these God-fearing, righteous-acting Gentiles.

The words “and in nothing discriminates between us and them” are sometimes appealed to by those who believe that the salvation of both Peter and his Jewish companions and Cornelius and his house was “by faith apart from works.” But that’s not what Peter had in mind here, and those who see this as being implied in Peter’s statement are reading their own position into what Peter said rather than understanding these words in light of the events of Acts 10 (which, again, are the events on which Peter’s statement is based). From these events we learn that, by the words “us” and “them,” Peter had in mind the following two categories of people who had believed the evangel of the Circumcision: (1) members of God’s covenant people, Israel (who, as such, had a covenant-based obligation to keep the law of Moses), and (2) a small group of Gentiles whom Peter understood to be “fearing God and acting righteously” and who (by virtue of this fact) were “acceptable to God” (Acts. 10:35). It was between these two groups of people that Peter understood God to have “in nothing discriminated.” But in what sense did Peter believe that God had in nothing discriminated between these two groups of believers? Peter tells us in the same verse: God had cleansed the hearts of both groups by faith (i.e., God pardoned their sins). God did not show partiality to Peter and his companions or give them any advantage over Cornelius and his house; rather, when the individuals comprising both groups believed the evangel of the Circumcision, God treated them both equally by doing the exact same thing for both groups (i.e., cleansing their hearts/pardoning their sins).

This fact is fully consistent with the view that Peter’s covenantal status as an Israelite (which involved his being circumcised and keeping the law) was inseparable from his eonian expectation, while Cornelius’ eonian expectation was based on the conditional promise of the Abrahamic covenant concerning gentiles who blessed Israel. Many erroneously conclude that, because God pardoned the sins of both Peter and his Jewish companions and Cornelius and his house when they believed the evangel of the Circumcision, it follows that Peter and his Jewish companions were no longer under any covenant-based obligations, and that keeping the precepts of the law was no longer necessary to their salvation as Israelites. However, this reasoning is fallacious. Consider the following argument:

1. God in nothing discriminated between Peter (an Israelite) and Cornelius (a God-fearing, righteous-acting Gentile), in that he cleansed the hearts of both men by their faith in the evangel of the Circumcision.
2. Cornelius - being a Gentile - had no covenant-based obligations before (or after) his heart was cleansed. 
3. Therefore, Peter had no covenant-based obligations before or after his heart was cleansed by faith, and could completely disregard the law of Moses without jeopardizing his eonian salvation.

The two premises are both true. However, the conclusion (3) does not logically follow from these premises, and the argument is thus a non sequitur. The fact that God did the same thing for both Peter and Cornelius (i.e., cleansing their hearts through faith) doesn’t mean that Peter no longer had to keep the law of Moses as an expression of his faith in order to receive eonian life (nor does it mean that Cornelius’ salvation was by faith alone, and disconnected from the fact that he was “fearing God and acting righteously”). A valid conclusion to the two premises could, instead, be expressed as follows:

3. Therefore, Cornelius didn’t have to become circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved.

Another valid conclusion to the two premises could be expressed as follows:

4. Therefore, it’s not necessary for Gentiles to become circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved.

The “unbearable yoke”

After having provided a succinct refutation of the position of the believing Pharisees, Peter concluded his short speech by (1) rebuking these Pharisees and (2) putting an emphasis on what believing Jews and believing Gentiles had in common. The rebuke is found in v. 10: 

”Why, then, are you now trying God, by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we are strong enough to bear?”

Peter clearly believed that the salvation of Cornelius and his house did not require that they become circumcised or keep the law of Moses. But was it the law of Moses that Peter had in mind when he referred to a “yoke” that neither the believing Jews present nor their “fathers” were “strong enough to bear?” Although I’m open to the possibility that this was what Peter had in mind, I’m not convinced that he did.

It must be noted that this sort of negative view of the law of Moses (as this would surely be) simply runs contrary to what we read elsewhere in scripture concerning the relationship of faithful, believing Israelites to the law given to Israel. In part three of my study, “God’s covenant people,” I noted how both David and James expressed very positive views of the law (see, for example, Psalm 19:7-11 and much of Ps. 119). Such references to the law as this make it very difficult to believe that David (and, by implication, Peter) viewed it as an “unbearable yoke.” And if they did view it as an unbearable yoke, it was a yoke that they were, nonetheless, happy (and zealous) to at least try and bear! And there are, of course, verses in scripture which indicate that at least some believing Jews were able to keep the law to a degree that they could be considered “just” and “blameless” in their law-keeping conduct (see, for example, Luke 1:5-6). So, if the law of Moses is what Peter had in mind when he referred to an unbearable yoke in Acts 15:10, then we have to conclude that the law’s “unbearable nature” certainly didn’t keep some Israelites from (1) being happy to keep it and (2) doing a relatively good job at doing so. But again, I’m not convinced that Peter had in mind the law of Moses here.

Earlier, I noted that it was significant that the believing Jews who were trying to get the Gentile believers to proselytize were from the sect of the Pharisees. Peter was well aware of this, and I think his rebuke in v. 10 is based on this fact. The Pharisees to whom Peter spoke would’ve understood a “yoke” to refer to the teaching of a rabbi (or to the teaching promoted by a particular rabbinical “school”). In Matthew 11:28-30 we read the following words from Christ: “Hither to Me, all who are toiling and laden, and I will be giving you rest. Lift My yoke upon you and be learning from Me, for meek and I and humble in heart, and you shall be finding rest in your souls, for My yoke is kindly and My load is light.As is evident from the words “lift my yoke upon you and be learning from me,” Christ’s “yoke” was his teaching, or doctrinal instruction. Christ was inviting people to become his disciples and learn how to serve God and walk in his ways by memorizing his teachings/doctrinal instruction, and by copying his example in obedience to God’s law. 

When Christ said that those who came to him would find rest for their souls, he was likely referencing Jeremiah 6:16-19:

Thus says Yahweh: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’  I set watchmen over you, saying, ‘Pay attention to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not pay attention.’ Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what will happen to them. Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people, the fruit of their devices, because they have not paid attention to my words; and as for my law, they have rejected it.

Here the “words” and law of God are described as the good way where God’s people would find rest for their souls. This is in contrast with how Jesus described the Pharisees as placing a heavy burden on the people that they wouldn't lift a finger to move (Matthew 23:2-4; Luke 11:45-46). Jesus was not criticizing the Pharisees for teaching the people to obey what God had commanded them to (Matt. 23:1-3), but rather he was referring to all of the many traditions and additions to the law that constituted their rabbinical “yoke” (Matt. 15:1-9, Mark 7:6-9). Peter knew full well what the “law of Moses” meant to the believing Pharisees who were present at the Jerusalem conference.[2] He knew that “the law of Moses” they wanted their proselytes to keep was not even the original, pure law of Moses that we find in scripture, and which was kept by Christ himself. Rather, it was their own burdensome and legalistic interpretation of (and numerous additions to) the law. Their “yoke” resulted in their proselytes becoming “more than double a son of Gehenna than” their teachers (see Matt. 23:15), and Peter undoubtedly took this fact into account when he said what he did in Acts 15:10.

Thus, understanding the “yoke” that Peter had in mind in Acts 15:10 as the distinct Pharisaical teaching concerning the law of Moses, we have no reason to believe that Peter saw the law of Moses itself (that which is found solely in scripture) as an unbearable yoke. However, even if he did view the law in this way, we have no reason to doubt that Peter believed that his faith in God and Christ would’ve been “dead” apart from his doing what he could to keep the law of Moses (and seeking forgiveness whenever he failed to keep it perfectly, in accord with 1 John 1:9). Peter understood that, by virtue of Israel’s covenant relationship with God, he and his fellow Jews were not exempt from trying to keep the law as a necessary expression of their faith in God (and of their faithfulness to their covenant with God). However, since Cornelius and his house had already been shown to be “acceptable” to God (and to have done what Peter understood as being essential for the pardoning of their sins), it was clear to Peter that these God-fearing Gentiles did not need to become proselytes in order to enter the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel.

“Saved in a manner even as they”

Peter went on to conclude his speech with the following statement: 
“But through the grace of the Lord Jesus we are believing, to be saved in a manner even as they.” Does this mean that there’s no difference at all between how Peter, Cornelius and those who became believers through the apostleship of Paul are saved? Not at all. It needs to be kept in mind that, by “we,” Peter, of course, meant “we who are Jews/Israelites,” and by “they” he meant “those who are of the nations.” He’s referring to two different categories of people, the former being comprised of those who are in covenant with God (and thus under the law), and the latter being comprised of those who aren’t. Peter was not saying that there was no difference whatsoever between Jews like himself and Gentiles like Cornelius. Rather, he was simply affirming that the salvation of those under the law and the salvation of those not under the law both involved, and required, believing “through the grace of the Lord Jesus.” That is, Peter’s simply emphasizing what he and his fellow believing Jews had in common with believing Gentiles.

The word translated “manner” in verse 15 (tropos) does not mean absolute sameness, with no differences at all; rather, it simply means there is some important similarly in view (which, as we’ve seen, is simply that the salvation of those in both groups necessarily involved believing “through the grace of the Lord Jesus”). The same word appears in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, where Christ declared that he often wanted “to assemble [Jerusalem’s] children in the manner (tropos) a hen is assembling her brood under her wings.” But of course, Christ certainly did not mean that there were no differences between his assembling of the children of Jerusalem and a hen assembling her brood under her wings! By appropriately emphasizing what believers among God's covenant people and believers among the nations had in common, Peter more forcefully drove home his point to the believing Pharisees that Gentiles did not have to become members of God’s covenant people in order for them to qualify for eonian life in the kingdom of God.

Although Peter appropriately puts the emphasis on the faith that is required for the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles in Acts 15:11, it must be kept in mind that, for those called by God to share in Israel's covenant-based expectation, Peter would've understood faith in the evangel he heralded (the evangel of the Circumcision) to have been inseparable from “fearing God and acting righteously.” For Israelites, this meant “keeping the precepts,” and for Gentiles (such as Cornelius and his house), it meant blessing Israel. It also meant getting water baptized (which Peter himself had declared was "for the pardon of sins"), as an expression of faith in the evangel of the Circumcision (which is why Peter did not hesitate to make sure Cornelius and his house were baptized after it was made evident that they'd believed his message concerning Christ). However, as far as the issue being discussed at the Jerusalem conference was concerned, the only thing Peter needed to emphasize in his defense of Paul’s ministry among the nations was (1) that faith was essential to both groups of believers, and (2) that Gentiles didn’t need to become Jews in order to be saved. And this is exactly what Peter does.

Cornelius’ eonian expectation

Given the fact that Cornelius and his house were called by God through the evangel entrusted to Peter (the evangel of the Circumcision), we can reasonably conclude that the salvation of Cornelius and his house was (and is) inseparably connected with God’s covenant people (this also follows from the fact that their “acting righteously” was inseparably tied to their relationship with God’s covenant people). That the calling and eonian expectation of Cornelius and his house were understood by Peter and James as being tied to Israel’s covenant-based expectation is further evident from what James went on to say in Acts 15:13-17:

“Men! Brethren! Hear me! Simeon unfolds how God first visits the nations, to obtain out of them a people for His name. And with this agree the words of the prophets, according as it is written, After these things I will turn back, ‘And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen... And its overturned structure will I rebuild, And I will re-erect it... So that those left of mankind should be seeking out the Lord, And all the nations, on them over whom My name is invoked, Is saying the Lord, Who is doing these things.’”

In these verses, was James referring to events that will be taking place “in the heavens” and “among the celestials” in the eon to come? Was he referring to that celestial kingdom in which flesh and blood is unable to enjoy an allotment (as was referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:50)? No. James was undoubtedly referring to the future kingdom of God on the earth – i.e., the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel, following Christ’s return to earth. And James clearly understood Cornelius and his house as being representative of that class of righteous Gentiles who - like the “sheep” of Matthew 25:31-46 - will be enjoying an allotment in the kingdom of God after it’s been established on the earth.

Based on this fact alone, it can be concluded that Cornelius and his house (and, by implication, Peter as well) were not in the body of Christ, and had not been “justified through the faith of Christ.” Consider the following logical argument:

1. Everyone called through the evangel of the Uncircumcision is justified through the faith of Christ when they believe this evangel, and everyone who has been justified through the faith of Christ is in the body of Christ.
2. Every member of the body of Christ has an expectation that is distinct from Israel’s covenant-based expectation.
3. The expectation of Cornelius and his house is in accord with Israel’s covenant-based expectation.
Conclusion: Cornelius and his house are not in the body of Christ and were not justified through the faith of Christ.

[1] In contrast with what Peter declared and wrote, Paul learned early on in his ministry as “the apostle of the nations” that water baptism was in no way necessary for the salvation of those called to be in the body of Christ, and that Christ had therefore not commissioned him “to be baptizing but to be bringing the evangel” (1 Cor. 1:17). With regards to Paul’s ministry and administration, the only baptism that mattered for those to whom he wrote was the baptism “in one spirit,” by which they had become members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13; cf. Gal. 3:27-28; Rom. 6:3-6ff.; Eph. 4:1-5; Col. 2:12). However, it’s clear from the immediate context that the baptism “in one spirit” through which one becomes a member of the body of Christ was not the baptism to which Peter was referring.

[2] Significantly, the law means the same thing to many observant Jews today. Consider the following on the JewFAQ website, under the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith:  “The Written Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings) were given to Moses.”  To the Pharisees, the Written and Oral Torah were inseparable, and one could not keep one without keeping the other. It’s for this reason that we find them accusing Jesus of breaking the Sabbath by healing (even though healing was not specifically prohibited on the Sabbath), accusing Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Sabbath for gleaning a snack from a field (even though this too is not specifically prohibited by the law), and accusing Jesus’ disciples - and later Jesus himself - of breaking a commandment by not ritually washing their hands before a meal.


  1. Hi Aaron!
    Thank you very much for your clear presentation of Peter's position. It makes sense. I had been struggling with the question of how much of the law was still applicable to the Circumcision gospel. I still have some questions, though...
    (1) Why did Paul say that Peter was "living as the nations" (Gal. 2:14), if he was keeping the law?
    (2) Did the "sheet vision"'s meaning include that eating "unclean" animals was fine from now on? I know the main meaning of the vision was to say that the Gentiles that were cleansed by God (Cornelius etc) were not to be considered unclean, but did that vision also include changes to food laws?
    (3) What is your comment on AEK's commentary on Acts 15:19? This is what got me thinking that not all the law was still to be followed (such as food laws), together with the fact that there is (coming to be) a transference of the Law mentioned in Heb. 7:12 (necessitated by "the priesthood being transferred", while it was on the basis of priesthood that "the people have been placed under law" Heb. 7:11).
    AEK writes: "A Jew, even if a believer, could not eat at the same table with a gentile if he should serve an idol sacrifice, or strangled meat, or blood. Had Peter's advice been followed, they would have cast off the yoke of the law, which they never were able to bear, and so could have had free and joyful fellowship with the Uncircumcision. James' plan keeps the Jews under the divine law and puts the nations under a human law. Instead of loosing all from bondage, he binds both."
    Now I'm thinking that this is one of the rare times where AEK got things wrong. Thanks for clearing up that the "yoke of the law" actually means the so-called "oral law" of rabbinical tradition. With this understanding, AEK's comment about getting rid of the yoke would make more sense. But on the other hand, James' decree comes from the Mosaic, not oral law (as far as I remember), so though James ought not to have put these laws on the Gentiles, the Jews could not have "cast off the yoke" of those rules without violating their covenant obligation.
    (4) When Paul tells the Galatians that the law was Israel's guardian until the time of maturity (which happened when God sent His Son), it sounds like he is speaking of the Circumcision, not just about Jewish Uncircumcision believers like himself. Or not?
    Perhaps you have already written on these things. I would very much appreciate an answer directly or by way of pointing me to a page you already have written.
    Many blessings,

    1. Hi Ruth,

      Thank you so much for your encouraging comments and thoughtful questions (and sorry for the delayed response!). I liked your questions so much that I'm devoting an entire blog article to answering them. I'm almost done with the response, so it'll probably be posted before the end of this week.

      Thanks again for the great questions.